How to Plan an Effective Meeting
Doing business is about meeting people. Meetings with suppliers or clients build relationships and reputations; team meetings give managers the opportunity to lead and team members the chance to shine. Our success, more than ever, depends on our ability to meet well.
This article looks at how to plan a successful meeting:
- identifying clear objectives;
- inviting relevant participants;
- preparing and distributing information;
- thinking about timing;
- preparing the venue; and
- preparing our own strategy as facilitator or leader.
Why do meetings fail?
The most common complaints I hear about business meetings are that:
- the meeting lacks purpose;
- time is managed poorly;
- conflict is allowed to escalate;
- sub-meetings develop;
- decisions are fudged, or deferred, or avoided;
- actions are not summarized;
- there is no advance notice;
- people are not encouraged to participate – so they don’t; and
- people leave feeling demotivated and despondent.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Meetings can be productive, efficient – and fun. They can even, sometimes, be inspirational.
The two skills of successful meeting management
We’re all responsible for a meeting’s success, but the principal responsibility lies with the person in charge: call them the Chair, the Facilitator or the Meeting Leader. If you are that person, you need to focus on two sets of skills.
- Planning the meeting
- Running the meeting
This article concentrates on planning.
The six ‘W’s
I keep six honest serving-men:
(They taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Where and When
And How and Why and Who.
With a little re-ordering, these questions can help us plan a meeting efficiently.
Every meeting should have a clear purpose or set of purposes. Decide what you want to achieve in the meeting, and gather the answers together in an agenda.
A purpose is not a subject. The clue is in that word ‘agenda’: Latin for ‘things to be done’ (not ‘things to be talked about’). ‘New IT network’, for example, is not enough; we need a verb to tell us what the meeting should be doing at that point. ‘Jerry to present new IT network and answer questions on implementation plan’ is much better.
Each agenda item should also contain the name of the ‘task owner’: the participant leading the conversation on that topic. And it should have an allocated timing.
Circulate the agenda early, to give participants time to prepare. Better still, invite them to contribute items.
Who is participating?
Are you inviting the right people? Can they attend? Meetings often fail because a key player is suddenly unavailable, or sends a deputy without the necessary authority or knowledge.
If an attendee is not a ‘task owner’, ask yourself how you expect them to contribute.
Think about how these people will behave as a group. A meeting is a group of people thinking together (or should be!); different groups have different dynamics. Can you manage that dynamic more effectively?
What do you need?
Meetings are often supported by paperwork, which must be distributed in good time. How easy is that documentation to navigate? Can you supply summaries to aid understanding?
The group might benefit from other kinds of support technology to help make their thinking visible: flipcharts or a white board; projection or computer equipment. Teleconferences make obvious technical demands. Do you know how to make everything work – or who to call if it fails?
Getting the timing right
How many of your meetings start or end on time? (How many of your meetings actually have a scheduled end time?)
Time is an irrecoverable resource. Once spent, you can never get it back. To make the most of the available time in your meeting, plan its use.
Set an end time. And keep to it. It’s no more than good manners.
No meeting or part of a meeting should last longer than 90 minutes. 60 minutes would be better. Build in breaks to allow for ‘mental re-charging’.
Put the longest agenda items in the middle of the agenda. Start the meeting with short, urgent but easy items. End the agenda with celebratory or ‘feel-good’ items, or presentations.
Allow time at the end of the meeting for summing up and review.
Make the timing challenging. There is never enough time to discuss everything. Instead of extending the meeting, deliberately reduce the time available – by as much as 40 or 50 per cent. Being pushed for time can, within reason, help us raise our concentration and energy levels.
The time of day matters. If you must hold a meeting towards the end of the day, consider how to counteract the inevitable effects of mid-afternoon fatigue.
Thinking about the meeting environment
The physical environment can powerfully affect the group’s thinking ability. Lighting levels, heat, the comfort of the furniture, availability of drinking water – all are important. The shape of a table matters, too (King Arthur used a round table for good reasons!).
Holding your meeting standing up may focus minds wonderfully.
How will you lead the meeting?
Finally, what is your strategy for managing the meeting? Work out some basic rules.
- How will you keep time?
- How do you want the meeting recorded?
- How will you work with a minute-taker to keep control?
- What kind of meeting leader do you want to be?
The most effective facilitators are like air-traffic controllers: they manage the space within which the group does its work. Your responsibility is to manage the quality of the conversation: by asking questions, summarizing, intervening to prevent distractions or clarify points, inviting different opinions or pushing for decisions.
This content was provided by one of our users, alanbarker830